Could Google TV get its Kindle Fire moment?

Google (s GOOG) started to distribute version 2.0 of its Google TV software this past weekend. One feature of the new version hasn’t gotten much press yet, even though it could be key for the future of both Google TV and the connected TV space in general: Google TV users will be able to install non-market apps, just like they can on any Android mobile phone. That could not only lead to separate app markets, but eventually also to Android-powered CE devices that have little to do with Google’s platform at all. Think Kindle Fire, but for your television.

Granted, Google TV’s troubled past makes it a little hard to imagine a future with multiple app markets and possibly even separate forks of the platform. However, a look at the Android tablet market – which is also still in its infancy – tells us a lot about how things could play out for Google TV:

The early copycats

The recent wave of Honeycomb tablets almost makes you forget there were Android tablets long before Google officially started to support devices other than mobile phones. Many of those early tablets were pretty cheap; most of them didn’t work all that well; and all of them used some generic version of Android, blown up to seven or 10 inches. And without Google’s blessing, most also didn’t have access to the Android Market, but they made do by pre-installing apps and offering access to third-party markets. And of course, quite a few tried to rip off the look and feel of the iPad. (s aapl)

One of countless Android TV boxes currently available on

Well, guess what? These copycat innovators are already in the TV space. A quick search on Alibaba unearths dozens of Android TV devices, usually priced around $100, promising Android 2.2 and various apps. It’s a safe bet than none of those will have legitimate access to the Android Market, but just like those early tablets, they’re going to figure out a way to make it work.

The original vendors

Google officially introduced Honeycomb-powered Android tablets this spring, and since then, we’ve seen a number of devices from major vendors like Samsung, Asus, Motorola (s mmi) and Dell. (s DELL) Most of these don’t seem to sell all that well because they have to compete with the iPad, but they obviously all have Market access and offer the real deal. Early on, the number of apps optimized for these devices was very limited. But just a few months later, there are already plenty of Honeycomb apps.

Fast forward a few months, and we are going to see a similar situation for Google TV devices. Well, they may actually sell better with the new OS as they’re not facing off against an iPad-like competitor, but still, 2012 will bring us Google TV devices from at least four major vendors, and I wouldn’t be surprised if even more companies joined the party. As a result, we’ll see many developers flock to Google TV as well.

The Fire challenge

Amazon’s (s AMZN) Kindle Fire is the first big fork of Google’s Android platform. The underlying code is all Android, but the UI is completely different, and it doesn’t offer access to the Android Market, much like the early copycat tablets. Of course, Amazon can easily make up for this omission with its own Android app store. Did I mention it’s cheap?

I think there very same thing could happen to Google TV. There are countless Internet media player devices from companies such as Boxee, Roku, Netgear, (s NTGR) WD, (s WDC) Seagate (s stx) and others out there. Some may have good reasons to continue the development of their own platform. Boxee, for example, is getting much of its code from the XBMC open-source project. But others may eventually decide it’s too much of a hassle to keep reinventing the wheel, especially when consumers start demanding things like a browser with Flash (s adbe) capability on their devices. So why not simply go Android?

Problem is, Google has pretty stringent requirements for Google TV hardware makers. The platform is expected to support ARM chips, (s armh) which should lower the price point of the device hardware. But manufacturers will still need to include plenty of RAM, the capability to work with a video feed from a cable box, as well as a full QWERTY keyboard to get Google’s seal of approval — all of which could significantly bring up the price of a set-top-box.

That’s why I predict that we will eventually see one of the WDs or Netgears of the connected TV space switch to an Android code base, but without access to the Google TV ecosystem. It will be a box with a full browser, plenty of apps and access to a separate app market: the Kindle Fire of the living room.

Fragmentation, or validation?

I’ve talked with Google TV execs about this issue, and they seem to be at least aware of the possibility that something like this could happen. Should Google care?

Consumers could obviously be confused by a number of different Android TV platforms, and developers could be frustrated if their devices run on one device but not another. That’s something Google is acutely aware of, based on the painful experiences it had early on in the handset space. “The most important thing is to prevent fragmentation,” Google TV VP of Product Mario Queiroz told me ahead of the launch of the new version. Google TV may look different as hardware partners give their respective devices their own look and feel, but we can expect Google will keep them much more in check to avoid fragmentation issues.

That of course still leaves implementations without Google’s blessing. It’s too early to say whether the Kindle Fire will help or hurt Android tablet sales, but one could argue that for Google, anything that gets developers and consumers to use Android over iOS is good. The same may one day be true in the TV space, in which case a Kindle Fire-like, set top-box may not look like Google TV at all, but still help Google to succeed in the living room.

Hear more about innovation in the TV space and the trends that will impact the connected consumer at the GigaOm RoadMap conference, coming to San Francisco on November 10.

Check out a first tour of the new Google TV in the video below: